In 1997, Doug Riley was making beer in Portland, Ore., when he spied a newspaper ad from a startup in Asheville looking for a brewer. A friend who was living in Asheville recommended the city, so Riley decided to apply for the job.
A few months later, Mike Rangel and his then-wife, Leigh Oder, were running the Asheville Pizza Co. shop on Merrimon Avenue across from the Fresh Market when they received an offer to take over Two Moons Brew-N-View, the brewpub where Riley’s beers were attracting attention. They went down the street to take a look.
The combination of the trio’s talents led to Asheville Pizza & Brewing Co. in 1998. Two decades later, the place is thriving with craft beers, pizza, a discount movie theater and a game room. The beer and food have become so popular that the business has grown to include additional locations on Coxe Avenue and Hendersonville Road.
“It’s been the most fantastic 20 years of my life,” says Rangel. The company’s president grew up in Lexington, Ky., and worked at pizzerias before moving to Asheville in 1995. “I had no inkling in any way that I would be involved in the brewing business.”
A lot of promise
When Rangel and Oder arrived at Two Moons in late 1997, less than one year after the business opened in the former Merrimon Twin theater, it was in disarray. The business was in serious debt in a leased building that had standing water in what had once been a second auditorium.
“I have a background in restaurant consulting,” Rangel says. “I was asked if there was anything I could do to salvage it. And if not, to help prepare it for sale. It was poorly organized except for the beer, and that’s what people were coming in for. We saw a lot of promise.”
Rangel and Oder decided to buy the place, mortgaging their home to make the purchase. They took on owner-partners, including Riley, a native of Muscle Shoals, Ala. When he arrived in Asheville, the craft beer scene was small. Two Moons was the city’s third brewery, following Highland Brewing Co. and Benefit Brewing Co. (later Green Man Brewery) at Jack of the Wood pub.
The first beers Riley made for Asheville Brewing were Roland’s ESB, followed by Shiva IPA, Rook Porter (later renamed Ninja) and Looking Glass Gold, a golden ale. Shiva, which has followed the same recipe for 20 years, was instrumental in introducing Asheville to IPAs, which were already popular in Portland.
In addition to the beer, the new owners retained another element from the old Two Moons concept: movies. According to Riley, the cinema had screened projected videos of film, but he, Rangel and Oder upgraded to 35-millimeter equipment and now use a digital projection system.
Rangel also wanted to improve on Two Moons’ menu of standard bar grub, so the food offerings were overhauled. He knew the pizza business and brought Asheville Pizza’s popular pies to the brewpub. “We were going to be a little more upscale with better pizza,” he says. However, they didn’t have much time. “We didn’t think [the previous owners] would take our offer. When they said yes, we weren’t prepared for it.”
A few weeks after buying Two Moons, Oder learned she was pregnant. The news prompted the owners to make Asheville Pizza family-friendly.
Two Moons closed at the end of 1997 and reopened Jan. 1, 1998, as Asheville Pizza & Brewing. Early on, Riley, Rangel and Oder each wore many hats. “Doug used to brew and help run the [pizza] ovens, and I would start the movie and sell tickets and sell beers and make pizzas,” Rangel says. “We had to convince Asheville that we were there for the long haul, that we were going to be a place to be proud of.”
Getting the business started wound up being far from the only serious challenge the trio faced. “Our first year of business, we put everything we could into installing a better projector and a new sound system,” Rangel says. “And then our heater went out.”
That hurdle occurred in the dead of winter, and the idea was floated to close for a few months until spring. The business was too new to qualify for a bank loan, so the owners put on a benefit called Heat Aid. Local musicians donated their services for the show, an investor also helped out, and a new heater was installed.
Later, there was an issue with a leaking roof, but that was also repaired. It took three years to break even and another five before the company started making a profit. “But we knew our pizza was good, and we had a lot of regulars,” Rangel says.
Through the years, Riley, Rangel and Oder have remained and been joined by many others, though Riley’s job has changed. He’s now on the operations side and works with the brewery’s distributor, Budweiser of Asheville. He enjoys the new challenges. Brewing, he says, “is rough on an old man’s back.”
The brewery continues to produce its core beers and add new ones like Perfect Day IPA, which has become one of its best sellers. Its canned offerings are sold throughout Western North Carolina while regular taproom-only small-batch releases attract locals and tourists alike. As for the theater, it still shows recent second-run films for $3 and throws in special screenings of older features such as The Princess Bride.
The reliable combination has become a magnet for beer and movie fans, as well as families — the owners’ included. Rangel’s and Oder’s son Simon works there four nights a week, as does Rangel’s stepson, Evan. “I’m really proud that they are part of a crew of the neatest people I’ve ever met,” says Rangel, who credits the community for making the company so popular.
“Asheville gave us a lot of feedback,” he says. “In a way, Asheville got us to where we are today more than any great plan I had.”
Asheville Brewing Co. has locations at 675 Merrimon Ave., 77 Coxe Ave. and 1850 Hendersonville Road. For more information, visit ashevillebrewing.com.